Rep. Beto O'Rourke shook up the status quo in Texas politics with his down-home, grassroots campaign. Can the Democratic Party in Texas reinvent itself and find more Supermen or Superwomen who can deflect GOP kryptonite?
HOUSTON — A Houston mural of Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke shows the Senate challenger bursting his shirt open to reveal a T-shirt that sports the State of Texas over his chest.
His coiffed hair and confident smile lead to a chiseled chin. A pastel rainbow creates a glow around him. The words “VOTE BETO” flank him. The mural presents the El Paso politician as the Lone Star Superman and to his supporters, he embodies the character.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) may have won one of the nation’s most watched races with 51 percent of the vote but to many in the state, he was not O’Rourke’s kryptonite.
“I know that the Beto supporters are sad right now,” said Michael Phillips, 58, a history professor at Collin College, author of Texas history and a progressive Dallas activist. “But they won’t be soon. I don’t think this is the end of Beto.”
Tuesday’s midterm loss was a case study for Texas Democrats, Phillips said. The candidate has given them a template to save their party, he said. For decades, the Republican party has had a stronghold at the state and national level, fueled in part by the Bush family legacy. Nothing about O’Rourke’s campaign reflected traditional Texas campaigning and his approach could offer the party a new beginning, he said.
“The Texas Democrat Party has lost for so long they don’t know how to run a state party,” he said. “So, Beto started his own.”
O’Rourke carried an authenticity that has been lost in state party politics, the professor said. The candidate rejected neo-liberal milquetoast politics that Phillips said has haunted the Democrats since Gov. Ann Richards lost to George W. Bush in 1994. The former punk rocker ran an ideological campaign that caused voters to give him a second look. His campaign also heavily relied on social and mobile media to the point that Phillips said he felt he had a new friend.
“The schtick has become all the same, ‘It’s all about me,’ ” he said referring to the Trump-style of politics.
Phillips said he received so many texts from the Democrat’s campaign that “O’Rourke hit an emotional core. I feel like I’ll miss him now that it is over.”
O’Rourke generated statewide excitement and interest when the low-key west Texas politician said he would campaign against Cruz by traveling the state via pickup truck to meet voters in every one of its 254 counties. He accomplished that goal by June 9, going door-to- door to shake hands and holding rally after rally.
Although he didn’t win, he came close enough that Phillips said the candidate did the Texas Democrat Party a favor.
“This was a dramatic moment,” he said. “I think a lot of it was tied to his character and personality. He was passionate. He had a charisma and when people talk about that ‘JFK-esqueness,’ I think that is a legitimate comparison.”
Sharon Hatfield, a 50-year-old editor from Fort Worth with a degree in jurisprudence, describes herself as a moderate Republican conservative. She agreed that O’Rourke offered a freshness not seen for decades.
She said O’Rourke carried the hallmark of the perfect Texas politician. He appeared to be someone you could have a beer with after he finished a set with his band.
“I saw some were trying to make being a punk rocker a bad thing and I thought, ‘Nah,’ ” she said. “He looks like someone who’s had fun and would be fun. I don’t think Ted Cruz has had a fun day in his life. He just looks awkward and seems to feel uncomfortable.”
Cruz, on the other hand, remained in his seat because he was Republican, Hatfield said. Despite that, she voted for him because she identifies as a stalwart conservative.
She said, “I hate him. He’s just awful but he’s not Beto.”
Nonetheless, she still supported her 18-year-old daughter who cast the first vote of her lifetime for O’Rourke. She said her daughter found an early-voting location with her friends and they voted together.
“I’d say she is that young woman demographic they said could change the election,” she said. “So, my son, who is two years older, hates Cruz but he said he wouldn’t vote for Beto so he skipped the election.”
Both Phillips and Hatfield said they believe that Dallas-Fort Worth region is becoming more blue as demographics change. Phillips said it is unlikely that Texas as a whole will become blue; he predicts over the next few years it will become solid purple.
They both also predicted the El Paso resident won’t run for president but could cast his name in the hat as a 2020 vice presidential candidate.
“I think it would be good,” Hatfield said. “I think it is important for Texas to be represented at the national level.”
Whether he is a vice president candidate or not, O’Rourke’s campaign is the “harbinger of things to come,” Phillips said. The candidate’s momentum kick started a down ticket shakedown when many county seats flipped Democrat on Tuesday.
If the party can learn from O’Rourke’s campaign, state level seats also will flip and then the national level will reflect that. It all starts, Phillips mulled, if the party can reorganize itself to find more Supermen who can deflect GOP kryptonite.
“The Democrat Party in Texas has to do a better job of recruiting better candidates,” he said. “I have to believe we have more than one Beto O’Rourke out there.”